On Wheels & Gendercoding

Posted: April 19, 2016 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’ve heard it said that “little boys just love things with wheels”, as though it makes any sense at all that one gender would have an inherent predisposition towards a particular human invention. In defence of this argument, people usually point to things like Hot Wheels, the Cars movie – all these films and franchises that little boys clearly love, as though the fact that many girls also like these things is merely incidental.

Here’s the other side of it: can you name a single TV show, game or toy line whose wheeled characters are predominantly female? No? Me neither. Plenty have one or two female characters, but every example I can think of is male-dominated, their merchandise sold and marketed almost exclusively in the boys’ aisle of the toy store.

But imagine, for a moment, that this wasn’t the case. Imagine we suddenly saw a glut of anthropomorphised car-and-wheeled-machine shows whose character lineup was 80-90% female – and more, if this fact was clearly emphasised in accordance with current gender colour-coding, the characters predominantly pastel-coloured, white and pink and blue and purple. Imagine if everyone who says “boys just love cars” was suddenly forced to account for why little girls were enjoying those shows and toys, while many (but not all) boys eschewed them.

The usual pat answer in such instances is, “oh, but girls love ANYTHING if it’s pink!”, as though this sort of innate colour preference makes any more sense than the idea of boys inherently loving vehicles, never mind the fact that pink being coded as a feminine colour is, historically speaking, a new development, less than a century old, and not some holdover from Time Immemorial. What we’d be seeing, rather, is evidence of girls enjoying feminine cars and boys enjoying masculine ones – meaning, in other words, that the initial divide had nothing to do with cars, per se, and everything to do with how cars were perceived.

At this point, people usually snort. “So girls like girl things and boys like boy things? We already knew that!” Except that, by changing the social coding, you literally just turned a boy thing into a girl thing – or at least, created a valid feminine permutation of it – with no harm done to anyone. “Boy things” is not an immutable category, but a social construct. We market cars exclusively to boys, then act as though it’s a biological inevitability that boys prefer cars. We segregate toy aisles by gender, making damn sure pink things only appear in the products meant for girls, then claim innate feminine colour-preference as the reason why girls play with them.

Here’s the thing about gender colour-coding: we don’t always do it on purpose, because it’s usually deeply internalised, so when it gets brought up in relation to kids, we assume it doesn’t matter. We assume, wrongly, that children are being more objective in their assessment of colour and meaning than we are as adults; that seeing stuff coded as being “for boys” or “for girls” has no impact on their choices, and that they’re acting instead on some deeper, intrinsic instinct.

So, let’s consider – is there other social colour-coding we expect children to tacitly notice, understand and act upon, even if we only ever explain it briefly, or in passing? Some other practice or practises to act as a reasonable yardstick against which to compare the gendering of their toys and clothes?

Yes. Yes, there is.

By the time they start school, we expect little kids to understand that green means go and red means stop, that a yellow light means wait but that flashing yellow lights mean a warning, but also, in different contexts, that red means low battery, green means full and yellow sometimes means charging. Whether through films or real life, they likely also know that black clothes are for serious things, and that white is a wedding dress colour – that’s if they’re Western, of course; they might just as easily know that red and gold are lucky colours for important days, and that white is the colour of mourning. At school, they might belong to a house with its own colour; at the least, they’ll know the school colours from their uniform, distinct from those of neighbouring schools at various sports competitions. They’ll know the colour of their country’s flag, and maybe the country’s colours, if they’re different (Australia’s flag is red, white and blue, but our colours are green and gold), and if they follow a sport, they won’t just know the colours of their own team, but that of rival teams, too.

So why is it so hard to imagine they’ll also learn that pink means girl and blue means boy – especially when it’s reinforced by the gender-balance of characters in particular toys and narratives – and react accordingly?

At the shops two days ago, my toddler wanted to try out a tricycle. A pink model sat beside a blue one; after a moment of deliberation, he chose the blue – and when he was done, he went straight back to the pink one, wanting to try them both. Given that he’d already had one ride, it would’ve been an expedient shortcut to say, “No, that one’s for girls,” and use that as an excuse to move him on, except that, no, that’s bullshit. It’s exactly those sorts of small remarks that teach kids about gender colour-coding: even if it’s not expressed as a negative, it tells them there are some things, or some variants of things, there’s no point asking for in future; that they can only ever have the one version. Instead, I told him, “Yes, the pink one’s nice too, isn’t it!” and let him look it over again before we continued onwards.

Even in toy shops that don’t overtly name their aisles according to gender, look at how the colouration works. There are pink aisles, and then there’s everything-else aisles. Pink Lego isn’t sold alongside the regular kind, nor pink-dressed dolls beside action figures – until you start mixing the colour placements, they’re always going to read as coded, because that’s exactly what they are. And increasingly, the problem persists, not because we’re worried about girls turning into tomboys – although there’s certainly still pushback on that count – but because we’re deathly afraid of feminising boys. On some deeply sexist level of the social backbrain, the logic seems to go, we can understand girls wanting to branch out into masculine fields, because masculine is better. But boys wanting to go the other way is viewed as regressive at best, and transgressive at worst – as though the real goal of equality is the eradication of the traditionally feminine and not, as is actually the case, its destigmatisation.

Cars aren’t inherently masculine. Pink isn’t fundamentally feminine. We’ve merely coded them that way – and until we acknowledge how easily kids interpret and internalise that code, we need to stop pretending their choices are happening in a vacuum.

  1. Bunny says:

    One thing I often see parents bring up in response to this is “but I didn’t push gender coding onto my girl child, and at 7 years old she’s just obsessed with pink! It’s natural!”

    Assuming said parent is being truthful that they never showered their kid in pink or whatever, there’s a few things missing from this argument.

    Like the fact that the parents are not the only adults in the child’s life. That grandparents, aunts, uncles, the bus driver, the staff at the supermarket, the paediatrician, the neighbours, the other parents you meet at baby clubs and that you took your kid on playdates to see when she was little. They all influence her in small but meaningful ways.

    Or the fact that TV is a thing that exists, and the children’s shows and adverts are largely extremely gender-coded. How many adverts does a toddler see in 30 minutes of watching a kid’s show? Adverts that all sell, not just the product, but the social divisions that marketers are explicitly interested in promoting.

    Or the fact that at 7, your child has been interacting with other children – without you around – for a couple of years. School is a huge social learning space, not just one where kids learn to read and write and add. And a hell of a lot of those other kids have come to school with prescriptive gender binaries taught to them. It doesn’t take many instances of a kid’s peers telling them that “boys can’t play with dolls” or “monster trucks are a boy thing” before a lot of kids will conform. And that’s just the kids. Teachers can be awful for pushing messages onto children, from little girls getting told that the boy in class who pulls her hair “just has a crush on her” to girls being told off for making “too much noise” while the boys scream away unabashed.

    But let’s say that none of that matters, that somehow your *perfect unique* child is immune to all social messages except the ones taught by you.

    So one girl child liking pink proves pink is *fundamentally feminine*?

    • fozmeadows says:


    • I remember very clearly the day (1st grade, 6 yrs old) that I was lectured by two of my friends about colors. Because, according to them, I didn’t *actually* like blue and green – I liked pink. Pink was the girl color, pink was the color all the other girls liked, so obviously I must like pink too. It doesn’t always happen that overtly, but the message is ever-present.

  2. Maddy says:

    “as though the real goal of equality is the eradication of the traditionally feminine and not, as is actually the case, its destigmatisation.”
    Please excuse me while I get this embroidered into a tapestry and then I’m going to hang it on my wall…
    Then I’m going to make my dad and uncles read this article. ‘But girls just aren’t as inclined to science Maddy! Why do you think you do history but we’re all engineers hyuk hyuk?’
    In other news, my wee cousin who used to adore Frozen, now claims that he hates it and runs away from any mention of it–all because a friend of his told him it was ‘for girls’. It makes me so angry/sad….

  3. […] Foz Meadows contemplates how cars and anything with wheels are seen as naturally attractive to little boys, proposing, instead, that it might be because cars and anything with wheels are never actively marketed for girls, with the stereotypical traits that implies. It’s a thoughtful piece on gendered toys. […]

  4. jessicak306 says:

    Reblogged this on Jess Jess and commented:
    Second to last paragraph. Yes.

  5. I do agree but there are certain things that are just allotted to one gender or another. Like a dress (unless you live in Ireland, they might buy it) is for a female, or transgender…A pair of boxers is for the male..so on.
    But wheels, etc. go both ways.

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